By Renée S. Gordon
“Lift every voice and sing, till earth and Heaven ring.”
One of the things I love most about travel is the fact that one has an opportunity to experience history in the very places where it was made. I have learned that many of the things I have been taught are true but not accurate; pieces are missing, stories go untold and the historical mosaic is not quite complete. Jacksonville, Florida is an excellent place to visit and fill in huge portions of America’s missing history and African American heritage.
Archeological evidence, middens and mounds, trash dumps and burial sites, has shown that Florida’s earliest settlements date from 12,000 BC. These native settlements were hunter-gatherers who probably migrated across the Bering Strait. Into the organized world of the Timucuan stepped Ponce de Leon in 1513 and claimed the land he named “La Florida,” “the feast of flowers.” On this voyage and subsequent explorations of the area men of African descent accompanied him.
Rene de Laudonniére and a group of 300 men, mostly French Huguenots, erected Fort de la Caroline on a bluff on the St. John’s River in 1564. It was 10-miles east of present day Jacksonville and was the first European colony in the US. On September 20, 1565, Spanish forces attacked the fort, viewed as a flagrant encroachment on Spanish territory. The French were ultimately routed and the Spanish moved 37-miles southeast and founded St. Augustine, the oldest permanent European colony in the US. The exact location of Fort Caroline is unknown but a memorial, a triangular reconstruction, is located within the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve. www.nps.gov/foca/index
Blacks played a significant role in the shaping of the culture of Florida throughout its history. A formal request was documented in 1580 asking permission from Spain to sanction the legal importation of black slaves and in 1687 records reveal that fugitive slaves from the northern colonies were being granted asylum in St. Augustine. Spanish slaves could attain freedom by serving in the militia or converting to Catholicism. In 1738, the hemisphere’s first free black community, Fort Mose, was established south of Jacksonville. www.fortmose.org
The institution of slavery became much more rigid when Florida was given to the English in 1763. Many South Carolinians moved into the territory bringing their slaves with them. At the close of the American Revolution, more than 5,000 white British sympathizers moved into the area with more than 8,000 slaves. In 1783, Florida reverted to Spain until the United States took over in 1821 and by the onset of the Civil War there were 70,000 enslaved.
Cowford was established in 1791 on the shores of the St. John’s River where it was narrow enough for ranchers to ferry their cattle across. The name was officially changed to Jacksonville in 1832 in honor of Andrew Jackson, the provisional governor of the Florida Territory.
The Museum of Science & History (MOSH) is the best place to begin any tour of Jacksonville and the surrounding area. The museum began in 1941 as the Jacksonville Children’s Museum. In 1988, its name was changed and in 1989, it opened a 74,000-sq.-ft. building which later expanded to 82,200-sq.-ft. The MOSH has five permanent core exhibits, Atlantic Tails, Currents of Time, Water Worlds, the Florida Naturalist’s Center and The Body Within, as well as traveling exhibits.
“Currents of Time: A History of Jacksonville and NE Florida” is a series of creative walk-thru galleries that afford visitors the chance to experience 12,000 years of local history. The winding corridors are chronological and individual displays are filled with sounds, artifacts, dioramas and videos. Of particular note are showcases featuring a map of area plantations and a scale-model of the 1450-acre Grants Villa, a gallery on Kingsley Plantation* and one interpreting the Seminole influence. Outdoor exhibits highlight indigenous animals and native plants. This is a really great venue and is an absolute must for every visitor.
The Mosh is accessible to the handicapped. Parking is free and it is open daily. There is an admission fee. 1025 Museum Circle. www.themosh.org/home.html
A short walk away is a true Jacksonville jewel, the Jacksonville Maritime Museum. The museum’s mission since 1985 has been to preserve, interpret and display the history of any vessel that sailed the St. John’s River. This feat is accomplished through displays, models, photographs and more than 1,000 major artifacts. The most notable aspect of this museum is the volunteer staff of retired seamen on site to answer questions and share experiences. Highlights of the collection are rare mariner’s instruments and books, panoramic photographs of historic Jacksonville’s waterfront and a gallery devoted to steamboats and life on the river. 1015 Museum Circle. www.jaxmaritimemuseum.org
The best way to gain a sense of Jacksonville’s unique African American heritage is through visits to historic sites throughout the city and the only place to begin is in LaVilla, once renowned as “The Harlem of the South.” The area, first settled in 1801, was once the antebellum LaVilla Plantation and later a freedman’s camp.
The Art-Deco Ritz Theatre & LaVilla Museum, 829 N. Davis St., is an 11,000 sq.-ft. museum and renovated 400-seat theater. Originally constructed in 1929 by Jefferson Powell, it was an important stop on the “Chitlin Circuit” and all of the great acts performed there until the 60s.
Executive Director Carol Alexander, a Philadelphia native, has crafted a museum that recreates the vibrancy of the neighborhood and the spirit of the individuals who lived there in a series of permanent galleries that replicate the community. Visitors are encouraged to walk a street of LaVilla complete with a church, barbershop, beauty parlor and the Two Spot Night Club, the biggest in the southeast with the largest dance floor.
A tour begins with a 15-minute program that features animatronic figures of James Weldon and Rosamond Johnson. James was principal of a local high school and penned the words to “Lift Every Voice and Sing” to be recited by students on Lincoln’s birthday. Rosamond set it to music. The brothers recount both their composition of the song and the history of the community.
The most affecting gallery is devoted to the Woolworths’ sit-ins that took place here and Ax-Handle Saturday. On Aug. 27, 1960, a large group of white men, set upon the sit-in participants with bats and ax handles. The violence escalated as they began attacking any blacks in sight while the police stood by. When black residents began to retaliate, the police began arresting them. Whites who joined the black protestors were given harsh punishments. A memorial plaque was placed in Hemming Plaza in 2002. www.ritzlavilla.org
Eartha M. M. White was born in 1876, the 13th child of a former slave. She was adopted and educated by Clara White. After a brief career as an opera singer she returned to Florida to teach and become a social worker. After the death of her fiancé just before their wedding, she devoted her life to charitable causes and the founding of institutions to serve the needy. In 1902, she established the Clara White Mission dedicated to her mother’s memory. In 1932, she purchased the Globe Theater because she needed additional space. Currently the mission serves up to 500 meals per day and houses 38 veterans.
Tours of Ms. White’s living area are offered and include her bedroom, office and the parlor where she entertained such luminaries as Booker T. Washington, Mary McLeod Bethune, J. W. Johnson and Eleanor Roosevelt. All of the furniture is original and displays include her clothing, awards, honors and memorabilia. She died in 1974. www.clarawhitemission.org
Edward M. Stanton School is adjacent to the mission. It was established in 1868 as the first public school for blacks. The masonry vernacular building dates from 1917 and it was here that Johnson was principal from 1894-1902.
Jacksonville has numerous places to dine, in all price ranges, for all tastes, but if you can only select one restaurant your only choice is Bistro AIX, 1440 San Marco Blvd. Executive Chef Tom Gray consistently creates award-winning dishes. The atmosphere is inviting and the service impeccable. AIX has been honored with countless awards and featured in numerous publications. I highly recommend this dining experience and I strongly suggest you make reservations in advance. Oh, and, take note of the mosaic chandeliers. www.BistroX.com
Jacksonville’s Crowne Plaza Riverfront Hotel, 1201 Riverplace Boulevard, is situated perfectly for touring the city. It provides easy access to I-95 and is within walking distance to the museums on this tour. Amenities include a heated out-door pool, free parking, WIFI, 24-hour Fitness Center, 24-hour Business Center, on-site restaurants and a plethora of packages and specials. www.cpjacksonville.com
Jacksonville, the largest city in the continental United States, is located in coastal North Florida and is considered the state’s gateway city. Whether Jacksonville is your final destination or stop along your route, it is not to be missed. For information on planning your trip visit the website. www.visitjacksonville.com
I wish you smooth and harmonious travels!
*featured in part two